The Year Coffee Was Illegal: Bad Brew

Photo by Mukul Wadhwa on Unsplash

The year is 1992.  A coffee-fueled killing spree on Rodeo Drive and radical DECAF activists have caused the federal government to do the unthinkable: ban coffee. When the anti-coffee law goes into effect, Seattle café owner Samantha Simms casts her lot with mystery man Maj. Milton Xavier and flies south to join the widow of Juan Valdez in an effort to keep the caffeine flowing. Meanwhile in America, TV celebrity/Surgeon General Dr. Bill and the fanatical leader of DECAF go to extreme measures to keep coffee illegal. A coffee-loving assistant attorney general reluctantly enforces the law, while her brother, just released from prison, is pressured by the mob to push coffee in the inner cities.

Bad Brew
June 1992
Scottsdale, Arizona

“So glad you could make it, Bill.” Al Church greeted his old friend, Surgeon General Dr. Bill Johnston.

“Well, under the circumstances, I think it’s better that I come to see you than the other way around. Can’t be too careful in D.C.”

“True. We both have enemies there.”

Dr. Bill followed Al to the back of the house, with its two-story window views of the Pinnacle Mountains. Even though it was late, the sun still hovered over the desert, creating the brilliant streaks of color not seen in sunsets on the East Coast. “I can’t blame you for not wanting to leave this place,” Dr. Bill told his host.

“Come back this winter and we’ll play some golf,” Al said. He set two glasses on the counter and filled them with water from a covered pitcher. “Triple-filtered,” Al assured his guest. “I know how you feel about fluoride.”

Dr. Bill raised his glass. “Cheers.”

Al slid open a glass door and motioned for Dr. Bill to take a seat at the patio table. “Have you eaten dinner yet? I have some vegetable and tofu kebabs marinating in the refrigerator that I could throw on the grill.”

“Oh, don’t go to all that trouble. I had something to eat over in Phoenix before I drove up.”

“I bet you had a good crowd down there. Good God-fearing folks.”

“There was a pretty good turnout,” Dr. Bill admitted, with a smile. “A few protesters outside, but that’s to be expected.” He chuckled to himself at some particularly memorable agitators. “This one fellow had a getup that looked like a coffee cup, with steam coming out of his hat. He and his buddies were passing out Bart Brown buttons. Or trying to. There weren’t many takers.”

“That would be the local members of the Brew Crew,” Al said, shaking his head, a chagrined look on his face. “They don’t have much traction here. Our supporters have certainly been effective, lying down at the entrances of coffee shops, boycotting certain grocery stores. We’ve put most of those poison pushers out of business.”

Dr. Bill patted his friend’s shoulder. “I know, Al. You’re doing a fine job. But you sounded worried on the phone. That’s why I came as soon as I could.”

“And I’m so glad you did. I am worried.” He raked his fingers through his thinning brown hair as he searched for the right words. “On the surface, we seem to be effective. No more noxious coffee shops on every corner, no more hyperactive workers on coffee breaks in the office, no more mountains of Satan’s drink piled high in every grocery store.”

Dr. Bill gave his friend a quizzical look. “Like I said, you’re doing great.”

“But all that’s just on the surface,” Al insisted, his eyebrows raised like two wispy parentheses on his shiny forehead. “Coffee has gone underground. Restaurants with private Taster’s Choice evenings. Supermarkets that keep bags of coffee stashed in the storeroom for their special customers. Book stores where if you say the right password, you get ushered into a secret coffee bar. Worst of all, lurking by the schools, ruthless thugs from the inner city pushing the new Mother’s Little Helper to the parents in the drop-off lane. Brazen!” He banged the tabletop to make his point, nearly tipping over his glass of water. “And all of it controlled by the Mafia.”

Dr. Bill shook his head. Al was a dear friend, but sometimes he got carried away. “Now, I don’t believe it’s that bad,” he tried to calm his angry friend. “If it were, there would have been more arrests …”

“Arrests?” Al spluttered. “By the police? Because they won’t do anything. Next to the reporters, they’re the worst caffeine abusers out there. Got to keep awake on those stakeouts. Or more likely, got to have something hot to wash down the doughnuts. As long as they’re getting their fix — and a share of the take — they just look the other way.”

Dr. Bill took a long sip of water before responding. “Do you really think there’s some kind of conspiracy to keep coffee in circulation?”

“I don’t think. I know,” Al retorted. “There are just as many coffee junkies out there as there ever were — they’re just hidden. I get reports all the time, from everywhere. These gangsters must be stopped.” He slapped the table again for emphasis. “This black market must be shut down.”

“But how? We’ve already passed the law…”

“Did the 18th Amendment stop alcohol? Take a lesson from history.” He leaned back in his metal chair. “Get comfortable. Let me tell you a story.”

“Sure,” Dr. Bill said. “I like your stories.”

And so, Al began his tale. “It’s Christmas, 1926. Almost seven years into Prohibition. But drinking has barely slowed down. Between speakeasies, bathtub gin and stolen industrial alcohol, a lush has no trouble finding booze. It’s everywhere.

“Then President Calvin Coolidge gets an idea. The government is already forcing industries to denature the alcohol they use — add ingredients that would make it difficult to drink — primarily methyl alcohol, a poison. But the mobsters are even better at renaturing the alcohol and making it drinkable again. So, the government ups the ante. The Treasury Department forces industries to make their alcohol more toxic by increasing the methyl alcohol to ten percent. They also experiment with kerosene, gasoline, benzene, acetone and a host of other nasty ingredients. Talk about your potent potables!” There’s a nasty gleam in Al’s eye that makes even his friend uncomfortable. “And at the Christmas parties in New York City that year, the drunks start dropping like flies. Four hundred that year, seven hundred the next — just in that one city.”

“But that was so long ago. Times are different now,” Dr. Bill told him. “Surely you don’t mean … You’re not seriously suggesting…”

“That the government do something it already has a precedent for doing?” Al said, undaunted. “That these godless addicts pay the ultimate price for their willful weakness?” He rubbed his hands together. “So, when the government intercepts black market coffee, it can dose it with — I don’t know which is better, strychnine or arsenic? — something bad, just like President Coolidge did. Pretty soon those caffeine addicts will start getting sick, even dying. No better than they deserve for their filthy habit. After all, no one is forcing them to drink the stuff. They’re criminals. They are breaking the law. Shouldn’t they be punished?”

Dr. Bill leaned forward in his seat. “Not with the death penalty. This is very dangerous territory. I couldn’t recommend that kind of policy. It’s too, well, extreme.” He pressed his hands on the table, intending to get up, but Al pushed down on his shoulders and held him there. For a wiry guy, he was surprisingly strong. Was it from specialized training? Dr. Bill had heard that the CIA, desperate for Spanish-speaking agents, had recruited Al when he dropped out of divinity school. He might still be a spook, for all Dr. Bill knew, and his involvement in DECAF part of an elaborate CIA plot. That was the kind of thing even the closest friends didn’t discuss.

Al gradually released his grip on Dr. Bill’s shoulders. The Surgeon General reflexively put his forefinger under his collar to loosen it. “But you have the precedent,” Al insisted. “The government’s done it before.”

“It’s not the same situation,” Dr. Bill said, shaking his head for emphasis. “Industries needed alcohol for manufacturing reasons, so they had to make it undrinkable or find some substitute. No one uses coffee for anything other than as a beverage, so when the government seizes the coffee, they take it out of circulation. They don’t put poison in it and redistribute it.”

“Maybe they should.”

“That’s not going to happen. Even if I was in favor of an extreme measure like that, I could never get it past that assistant attorney general who’s enforcing the law, Lucy Witherspoon.” Just thinking of past encounters with her made Dr. Bill grimace.

“So, bypass her. Have some initiative!”

Dr. Bill got up and began walking toward the glass door. “No, I can’t take that kind of risk. It could jeopardize all that we’ve accomplished so far. If tainted coffee wound up in the wrong people’s cups, there would be hell to pay.”

Al blocked the doctor’s path. “What if we make sure it gets into the right people’s cups? Like certain celebrities — that might scare people straight.”

“I have to say no. It’s just too dangerous. The government can’t be involved in anything like this, no matter what happened in the past.” He stared Al right in the eye. “Understand?”

Al backed away, hands held up in surrender. “OK, I understand.” He opened the door for his guest and escorted him back to the front of the house.

Feeling uncomfortable leaving on such a negative note, Dr. Bill stuck out his hand to his friend. “No hard feelings?”

Al gave Dr. Bill’s hand three firm pumps. “Of course not. You have to follow your conscience.” He remained on his porch, waving and smiling as Dr. Bill and his car slowly disappeared into the desert darkness. Then he spoke softly to no one but the boulders, the sagebrush, the cacti and the occasional scorpion. “And I have to follow mine,” he said.

Anticipating his old friend’s resistance, Al had already set in motion a plan that would shock the country into destroying coffee forever. And before the end of the year, he would take coffee’s destruction to the source, with a war against Colombia, even if he had to take out the evil genius behind the coffee conspiracy — Juanita Valdez — himself.

New York City

Desi the Spoon used his last piece of cornbread to sop up the juices from the collard greens that had just disappeared from his plate. “You sure do make some fine collards, Mattie,” he told the woman behind the counter of the Soul Train diner in Harlem. Her round face was framed by the floral scarf she used to hide her hairnet. “What’s your secret?”

“Come back and cook for me again and I might tell you,” she said, wiping his cornbread crumbs into her other hand, cupped beneath the edge of the counter. She put his plate into the sink, automatically asking, “Can I get you a cup of — I mean a glass of iced tea?”

“Nah, I’m done.” He checked his watch and stood up.

“Why don’t you come cook for me?” Mattie insisted. “Last I heard, you were about to open your own place down in Carolina, but here you are.”

“Yeah, well, plans change,” he said gruffly.

Her voice went up an octave as she scolded, “I sure hope you’re not getting hooked up with that bad stuff that got you into prison. If your mama could see you now…” She mumbled under her breath as she turned back to the grill.

Anger flashed through Desi’s brain. He hated it when old ladies did that to him. “What are you mumbling about?” he said. “You got something to say to me, say it to my face.”

“Alright, I will.” She turned back to the counter, her eyes defiant as the eagle’s on a dollar bill. “Although I promised your mama I wouldn’t.”

“Wouldn’t what?”

“Tell you.” Mattie leaned over the counter, motioning for him to do the same. “You got a sister,” she whispered.

“Ha! No joke.” He gave a bitter chuckle. “Since we don’t know what happened to Daddy, I probably have a lot of sisters. And brothers.”

“I don’t know about that. But I do know that you have a sister. A twin sister,” Mattie went on. “Your mama was too poor to think of raising two babies at the same time, so she kept her baby boy and gave away her baby girl.” She paused a moment in her cleaning to give a heavy sigh. “The way you act sometimes, I bet she wished she’d kept the girl.”

He snorted. “I don’t know. Depends on how the girl turned out.”

“She got adopted by a fine family who took her away from this place. I don’t know what happened to her after that. But I think your Aunt Cecilia knows.”

Desi thought of the laminated card still wedged into the secret compartment in his shoe heel. Mattie had confirmed what he had begun to suspect. “Yeah, I think she probably does,” he said quietly. He was getting pretty tired of being pushed around by Romano and his thugs. Maybe it was finally time to find out who this Lucy Witherspoon really was.

He checked his watch once more, then threw down the money for his tab and twice that for a tip. He grabbed a pack of gum on his way out the door. “See you next time, Mattie,” he called.

“Not if I see you first,” she said, still grumpy.

On the street, Desi glanced right and left before heading toward the subway station. Anybody who could afford it left the city during the summer heat, so Manhattan usually felt deserted in July and August. But this year, it was packed because of the Democratic convention starting this week at the Garden.

Of course, it was always crowded here in Harlem. Not many vacations in the Hamptons for its residents. As he jostled his way across the last street before the subway stop, a man with a briefcase nearly knocked him to the pavement.

The man looked like the Pillsbury Doughboy with greasy black hair instead of a chef’s hat on top. Desi recognized him as one of Romano’s thugs, although he couldn’t recall his name. All those white guys looked alike to him.

“Walk with me,” the mobster muttered, grabbing Desi’s elbow and propelling him back to the corner he’d just left. “I got a message from the boss.” He slid a small envelope into Desi’s hoodie pocket, under the pretense of straightening his clothes. “Sorry, mister,” he said loudly, continuing to dust nonexistent dirt from the light gray cotton covering Desi’s shoulders. “I’m late for a meeting and didn’t see you.”

Damn straight, you’re late for a meeting, Desi thought. The guy was supposed to bump into him just outside the diner. But with Mattie’s suspicions, maybe it was just as well that he was late. “It’s cool, man.” Desi started to pull away. “But I gotta go. I don’t want to miss my train.”

The mobster held his elbow with an iron grip even as he nodded and smiled. Under his breath, he muttered, “The boss wants to see some action soon. Details are all in there.” Then, with one last piercing look from his coal-black eyes, the mobster released him.

Desi turned to continue his leisurely walk to the subway station. Even if he had been late for a train, he wouldn’t have run. He knew — to a cop — a black man running on the street was guilty of something. Just being black seemed to be a crime.

At the phone booth, he pretended to consult the yellow pages while reading the note he had slipped inside, the list of times and locations received from the mobster. Operation Java was about to begin.

Operation Java was what Romano was calling the Mob’s plan to step up coffee-pushing in tourist spots in the city — the Empire State Building, Broadway, the Twin Towers. Romano’s theory was that most of the city’s cops would be stationed in and around the Garden, protecting the politicians from protesters.

But Desi wasn’t so sure that his gang should be the ones pushing in those places. “The brothers are gonna stand out like pepper in rice down there,” he had told Romano when the mobster first proposed the plan at their last meeting in person, an odd visit by a street hustler to his former white-collar prison. “We’re better off sticking to Harlem and the South Bronx. Let the white dudes take Manhattan.”

Romano had already deployed his “white dudes” on different missions, some to Brazil to make the coffee growers there an offer they couldn’t refuse and some to Colombia to track down Samantha Simms, a.k.a. Medellin Sam, and the mysterious no-smell coffee plant she was said to be developing. Such a plant would make his fancy deodorizing coffee makers — but not Desi’s nose plugs — obsolete.

“Isn’t this just the sort of job that the ‘brothers’ are familiar with?” Romano had asked. “And tourists are such easy marks.”

The Big Cheese was right about that. In the old days, Desi had known dealers who cut cocaine with just about anything white — flour, baby powder, confectioner’s sugar — and made a good living off out-of-towners determined to live it up in the city. Now that they could get that stuff legally at the ABCD stores, the high they craved was coffee. What a crazy world.

“What’s in it for us?” he had demanded of Romano.

“The usual cut. And a very special blend that I just picked up from a new source — the Navy.”

“Whose Navy? Ours?”

“That’s right. It seems that the Navy has figured out a way around the Dornan Act so that sailors at sea can still get their caffeine fix and some of those sailors have figured out how to sell those supplies on the black market.” Romano had paused, Desi remembered, with an apologetic half smile on his face. “No offense.”

Desi shook his head at the memory. Now he read the note over and over until he had memorized the list of times and locations. Then he spit a big wad of gum into the paper and balled it up. Spotting a trash can about twenty feet away, Desi did his best Michael Jordan imitation, wagging his tongue and lofting the crumpled paper high into the air.

Just as he let the ball of paper go, Desi noticed a transit cop turning the corner. The paper bounced off the top of the trash can and fell to the floor. The transit cop picked it up and headed toward Desi. “This yours?” he asked.

Under the visor of his dark blue cap was a freckled face that looked so young it made Desi wonder if the kid was old enough to be a cop. “Yeah,” he said good-naturedly. “I’m not as good at hoops as I used to be.”

The red-haired youngster shook the paper ball at him. “This is littering. Now put your hands up on that wall and spread your legs.”

Desi rolled his eyes but complied with the directions. Still holding the paper ball in one hand, the kid patted up and down his arms, legs and chest. Then the cop poked his hand into the pouch in Desi’s hoodie and triumphantly removed a pack of gum.

“And where’d you get this? Shoplifting?”

“Naw, man. I paid for that.”

“Got a receipt?”

“Seriously?” Desi just stared at the kid, then looked over his shoulder to see if someone was filming this for TV. Were they still doing Candid Camera?

“No. But I got it right down the street, at the Soul Food diner. Ask anybody. They know me there.”

“I bet they do. Until then, though, I’m going to have to take you into custody.” The kid snapped handcuffs on Desi. He held the crumpled ball of paper in front of Desi’s face. “And I’m keeping this for evidence.”

Of course, the charges didn’t stick. Even the precinct cop could see this was a bum rap. But while he was in the holding cell, Desi happened to run into one of the brothers that was part of the Java operation.

“What’d they get you for?” Jimmy asked him.

“Transit cop busted me for littering.”

“For real?”

“’Fraid so. But I’m glad I ran into you.” Desi lowered his voice. “Some new orders came down today. From the Cheese.”

Jimmy’s eyes opened wide, and he began to shake his head. “No way, man. I’m not pushing that shit no more.”

“What are you talking about? It’s not drugs, man. It’s just coffee.”

“That’s what you think. That shit will kill you.” Jimmy looked genuinely terrified.

Desi shook his head. “You one of them DECAF freaks now or something?”

“I’m for real. We got a delivery last night from the Cheese. Some new special brew, he says.”

“Yeah, he got it from Navy surplus or something like that.”

“Well, I don’t know where he got it from, but that shit is bad. I mean, real bad.”

Desi laughed. “I don’t expect sailors to get the good stuff.”

“Listen to me, Des. I’m for real.” Jimmy dug his fingers into Desi’s arm. “This shit kills. I might be facing a murder rap right now. Manslaughter, at least.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “We brewed up a batch last night for a house party. And everybody was having fun, doing shots like we used to do with tequila. Then all of a sudden, people started to get sick. Real sick. Choking, bent over double and throwing up. Got so bad somebody called 911 and we had to clear out and take the shit with us.”

“Aw, man. Chill.” Desi loosened Jimmy’s grip on his arm. “They probably got some bad food or something. Some of that raw fish people eat.”

“This ain’t no fish,” Jimmy insisted, pulling Desi’s head down so he could talk in his ear. “It’s the coffee. It’s something in the coffee. And at least three people from last night were DOA.”


While Desi was being processed for his crime, seven stories up and several blocks south, Marjorie Brown was watching a breaking news report on the hotel room’s TV.

“In a stunning revelation that has shaken the Democratic Party to its core, presidential frontrunner Sen. James Miller has been accused of molesting members of his son’s Boy Scout troop on a recent camping trip in New Hampshire.”

Marjorie nodded, her lips set in a stern line. “I always knew he was a pervert.”

“Who?” Bart asked, still toweling his wavy dark hair after his shower. He looked up and saw a very familiar face on the screen, surrounded by news cameras and microphones. The man kept saying the same sentence again and again.

“I did not have sex with those boys.”

Suddenly a red-faced man burst through the ring of journalists to confront the politician. “Are you calling my son a liar?” Then the angry dad punched him in the stomach.

Doubled over in pain, the politician managed to gasp again, “I did not — have sex — with those boys,” before ducking into a dark sedan with tinted windows.

The jangle of the telephone claimed their attention. Marjorie thoughtfully muted the television as Bart picked up the line.

He immediately recognized the high-pitched nasal Tennessee drawl of the Speaker of the House.

“Bart, you ol’ son of gun, it’s go-time. Jim Miller is finally going to drop out of the race to spend more time with his family and not a minute too soon, with the convention starting tonight and all. Are you ready?”

“But I just saw… How did you know…” Bart spluttered in confusion. “I don’t get it. Who’s saying those terrible things about Jim?”

“Never you mind,” said the exasperated Speaker, but his voice brightened at a new thought. “Is your little lady around? Let me speak to Miss Marjorie.”

Wordlessly, Bart handed over the phone to his wife.

“How can I help you, Mr. Speaker?” she asked.

“Just make sure that dad-blamed husband of yours gets down to the convention hall tonight, looking presidential,” he told her. “It’s time to get down to business.”

“I understand, Speaker,” she said, a smile playing on her petal-pink lips. “It’s morning in America. Time to wake up and smell the …”

“You know what,” the Speaker finished for her.

About the Author

Susan Hudson

Susan J. Hudson was the food and travel editor/writer for The (Raleigh) News & Observer before joining the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a communications specialist. There she edited the University Gazette and helped launch its online successor, The Well, the online news source for University faculty and staff.